The Mary Jane Falls Trailhead parking lot was packed on the first weekend of triple-digit temperatures this year. Most of the folks parked there were headed up the trail, but I was there for the second in a series of eight Wildlife Divide art workshops that will take place on Mount Charleston through the end of September. Local artists David Sanchez Burr and recent transplant Graham Wimbrow guided two other attendees and me through a few hours of hauling stones, fallen timber, wood chips and charcoal from dead, illicit campfires into a nearby wash. While arranging them into a pretty cool little installation, we sweated and talked and learned a few things about the mountains and about art.
Wildlife Divide is a series of free, art-in-nature workshops organized by the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area and sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, Great Basin Institute and the Southern Nevada Conservancy. Sanchez, a Madrid native and UNLV alum, took on the job of the recreation area’s art-education coordinator last year and initiated Wildlife Divide as soon as he came onboard. “We’re really trying to get people outside and connected with nature.” Although getting “connected with nature” is presumably what the trail-walkers were also doing, Wildlife Divide has an additional purpose: to educate through participation in art-making.
Wimbrow, who graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2011 and is an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer with the Outside Las Vegas Foundation’s youth program, guided the day’s workshop. “I want people to treat it almost as a moving meditation and [be] less focused on the output. We’re going to be working in a wash, which means that anything that we do is going to eventually be removed; either someone comes around and kicks it over or water pushes through. My attitude toward interacting with this space in an artistic way is not really about being able to come down off of the mountain with a piece of art in your hand, it’s about trying to introduce people to the idea that this isn’t the place where art has to stop or art has to exist. If you come up here and decide to stack a couple of stones, that’s an artistic engagement you have with this space. It kind of broadens expectations about what art could be.”
Wimbrow adds that this project might reciprocally inspire him as well. “It’s an opportunity to interact with people who don’t have that art front and center in their lives, people who have their own backgrounds. That’s really where you’re going to get the new ideas.”
Attendees’ level of art awareness is “pretty high,” says Sanchez Burr, but I didn’t feel at all self-conscious or out of place. My level of art awareness could politely be described as not very high, and Sanchez Burr and Wimbrow were more than cool with that. Sure, Sanchez Burr says a lot of people who come up “are actual artists, but there are also kids who show up, families, retirees; we’ve had a wide variety of people.” In fact, he says, he finds the mixing of trained artists and curious amateurs catalyzes the whole process, “because you have artists that you can almost expect will be doing something that has this ‘layer of art’ over it whereas other people come in and they want to know more. I really get a kick out of people who come up here and have no preconception of what is going to happen. That’s when the real excitement happens.”
Sanchez Burr says the first workshop this year was well-attended and, based on last year’s numbers, having only a few people show up made the event a little underpopulated. “We usually get six to 12 people at each workshop. We’re hoping to get around 12 every time, but we’ll go up to 15.”